Alessandra Covini from Studio Ossidiana reasearched the significance of the oriental carpet and the prayer rug, and their association with architecture. Studio Ossidiana is an architectural practice based in Rotterdam that explores architecture through theoretical research and material investigation.
The carpet, often considered merely an item of furniture for the floor or the wall, or as a woven painting with floral motifs, represents instead a series of material and symbolic meanings overlapping with architectonic notions.
Western art critique is often poor in explaining the artistic value of the carpet, reducing its significance to comments on colours, stylization of motifs and decoration, and fails to address the individuality and artistic reality that the carpet embodies. The carpet is in fact not a decorative artefact, but rather the first delimitation of space in a territory. It is comparable to the temenos - a holy portion of land that is cut off, a sacred precint devoted to god. Similarly, the carpet is a temenos dedicated to human existence. It is both sacred ground and a profane platform on which human life can play out. According to art historian Sergio Bettini , in the carpet space is not represented by drawings and colours, but it is the carpet itself, as in a house, that you enter.
Taking these concepts as a point of departure, Studio Ossidiana studied the carpet’s various meanings using a variety of methods. The installation for Prayer Rug Platform. Body/Space portrays different scenarios and uses in which the prayer rug and the carpet appear. It highlights the carpet as a platform that is both an object and architecture, embodying both material and symbolic significances.
With its woven, architectonic motif and its orientation towards Mecca, the prayer rug acts as a temporary place of worship outside the mosque. It is a portable sacred ground that can be used at any time, isolating worshippers from their immediate surroundings, transporting them symbolically elsewhere.
The prayer rug is a space suitable for one person to perform their daily prayers, in different positions: standing, kneeling and touching the rug with the forehead. The prayer rug features a niche that is woven into the material, indicating where the body should be positioned. It represents a doorway with the form of an arch that indicates the direction to face during prayer. The form of this arch is reminiscent of the Mihrab, a gateway that symbolizes the door to Paradise, the opening to the hereafter.
Depending on the region in which it is produced, the prayer rug represents different types of shapes and architectural forms; the niche can be rounded, or stepped-arched, geometric in shape etc.  In Persian prayer rugs the arch is usually supported by two columns, in which foliage rooted in the ground connects symbolically to the sky. In other regions, such as Anatolia, the niche’s doorway features a more complex architectural structure: triple arches with a higher central unit supported by paired columns. This structure is considered to be inspired by Roman architecture and adopted by Muslims in the architecture of their palaces and mosques, and subsequently represented in carpets.  Caucasian carpets, by contrast, were produced by nomads who lived in tents in desert regions. The absence of architecture in their visual repertoire lead to the production of carpets with more stylized and abstract motifs, which instead referred to anthropomorphic symbols. Caucasian prayer rugs feature geometric, stylized arch shapes, combined with the position of the worshippers hands. The arch resembles the position of the head during prayer. Such symbols belong to a repertoire that is ancient in origin, connecting to divine and magical rituals that transcend Islam.
The decoration of the space inside the niche varies according to the region. In Persian carpets the niche’s interior portrays clear figurative images of the garden of Eden, with flowers, bushes, trees, vases and birds of all kinds arranged in an abstract garden. Other types of carpets represent a suspended mosque lamp with a floral medallion, an abstraction of the fountain, hinting at the purification ritual that precedes prayer. In Turkish Giordes prayer rugs the border of the carpet is intricately decorated, while the niche interior is represented with a section in a single colour featuring a void, abstracting the absoluteness of the afterlife.
The variety of colours and motifs found in carpets has been maintained partly due to the poor communication between the various countries of origin. Carpets are very much connected with the territory and landscape where they were produced; types of wool, dyes, plants and vegetation all reflect the landscape in which their makers lived. On the other hand, geographical barriers did not prevent outside influence entirely. Over the centuries certain symbols crossed geographical borders, spreading through different regions, cultures and religions. Symbols represented in Islamic carpets are also found in Chinese and Jewish rugs, including the cross, the bird and arches.
The prayer rug is not only used in a domestic setting and in isolation. In fact the prayer rug is widely used in mosques, in a collective and shared ritual. In the mosque the prayer rug becomes a modular element of the floor layout, featuring a niche indicating where the body should be positioned. In this setting the prayer rug is part of a multiple-niche carpet, called saff, composed of several niches in a row, facilitating the lining up of worshippers in long ranks side by side as they face the Mihrab, a decorated semi-circular niche in the wall of the mosque where the prayer leader stands, indicating the position of the Qibla. The two-dimensional motif of the niche in the prayer rug is translated into a three-dimensional architectural niche, on the wall of the mosque, a symbolical doorway to Paradise. In the mosque the niche motif is also found in durable materials in various architectural spaces, such as the floor, walls, or at the entrance. The architectural motif of the Mihrab suggests permanence, in contrast to the fragility, displacement and portability associated with the prayer rug.
Another element that brings together the carpet and Mihrab architecture is found in Iranian mosques, for example in the Friday mosque and in the Oljeitu Mihrab at the Jameh Masjid in Esfahan. Here, in front of the curved niche of the Mihrab on the mosque’s wall, a niche is excavated in the ground. Inside this space lies a prayer rug, where the Imam enters to pray, performing the liturgy. This niche excavated in the ground is an archetype that recurs in Persian sacred spaces since times that precede Islam, when such niches in the ground functioned as an altar, symbolizing the holiest place in the temple.
In Mithraism, a religion that existed in Persia before the Zoroastrians, and that became very popular in the Roman Empire after the conquest of the Middle East, the altar is a hole in the ground, probably filled with water for a purification ritual, and topped with an oculus in the dome to let light in. The etymological roots of Mithraism refer to ‘sun’ and ‘water’, indicating the spot where light touches water. This convergence of light and water at the same point symbolized the Axis Mundi, corresponding to the centre of the world, the place where Earth and Heaven converged. The mirroring surface of water, reflecting the sky’s surface, symbolically brings to earth the celestial Paradise. The altar thus becomes the holiest point on earth. The same point has been represented in the iconographies of carpets in the Middle and Far East by a cross, indicating the four parts of the universe coming together.
The hole in the ground became a recurrent figure in Zoroastrian temples, which were built on top of Mithraic ones. Here, the niche excavated in the earth hosted the eternal flame, centre of the Zoroastrian cult, the altar in which the sacred fire burns. A carpet belonging to the Ballard collection features a Zoroastrian type of prayer rug with a niche, composed of concentric frames. It is believed its centre is intended to represent the holy fire upon the altar . A link can be made with the niche excavated in the ground that is found in Iranian mosques today.
Over the centuries the water basin was brought outside the mosque, while the excavated niche appeared within the niche of the Mihrab as the holiest place in the mosque, pointing to Mecca, the altar where the leader of the prayer performs. A striking inheritance of the hole in the ground as altar can be seen on Tehran University’s campus, where the supreme leader conducts the Friday prayer. Here the Mihrab is a horizontal niche carved in the ground, with an arched end towards the Qibla, resembling the form of prayer rug excavated in the earth.
According to some interpretations this niche within the niche, still found today in some Iranian mosques is even represented in prayer rugs, in a symbol known as the ‘keynote’. In such prayer rugs the base of the niche is not contiguous with the rug’s border, but presents a small enclave entering in the field of the niche. This small octagonal shape has been interpreted as the representation of a niche within a niche within the Mihrab form (J. Zick, 1962) , the hole in the ground within the curved Mihrab niche. Another interpretation holds that it represents the water basin or water course, originally featured in the middle of the mosque (V. Enderlein, 1967) .
The prayer rug then almost becomes an architectural drawing of the plan of the mosque, portrayed with the typical Islamic bird’s eye view representation.
Such examples showcase how in the carpet and in the prayer rug, architecture, craft and symbolism merge in a unique system of references, in which decoration goes beyond mere representation, portraying instead a philosophical conception of the world. The carpet acts in this system as a sacred ground that moves across space, representing in its motifs the Axis Mundi and positioning humans in relation to the world and in the universe.
Carpet use in Western and Eastern contexts
In contemporary Western domestic spaces the carpet is used as a very common piece of furniture, generally with a purely decorative function, an object in the house, like the chair, table or sofa. The Western use of carpets in this sense started when the carpet arrived in Europe, following the conquest of and trade with the Middle East from the thirteenth century. This precious artifact fascinated wealthy European leaders and merchants, who displayed them in their houses on top of tables, as a symbol of power, and status. This tradition is portrayed in the paintings of Renaissance artists such as Lorenzo Lotto, Ghirlandaio, Holbein, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Memling, who displayed their skills in representing the textures and motifs of oriental carpets. Today the practice of using carpets on tables persists in Dutch culture, and can still be found in some homes and cafes, as well as in museum collections such as that of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The ‘Still Life’ by Nicolaes van Gelder, painted in 1664, for example, features an Anatolian prayer rug decorated with three arched columns, placed on a marble table, topped with baskets laden with peaches, grapes and plums.
The Western use of carpets has little in common with the meanings that the carpet embodies. To understand this we need to go back to the territory where the carpet was produced: the desert, poor in water, inhabited by nomadic tribes that in the first millennium B.C. created the carpet.
Paraphrasing the words of art historian Sergio Bettini, the carpet responds to one of the fundamental needs of mankind, the act of enclosing, defining, giving form to the living space. It serves as protection against limitless space and time.
In nomadic, pastoral cultures, people had no stable abode, were always on the move, did not build houses and carried all their possessions with them. One of these was the carpet, which could be rolled up and carried by horse or camel. ‘The carpet is for the Eastern (at least in origin) nomad, what for the European is the house, in its primordial and existential meaning: it is the form that he/she gives to the space of his life.’ (S.Bettini, 1998) It is a place that is both house and temple, a place of shelter and leisure, and a place for prayer.
The frame of the carpet cuts and delimits a portion of the infinite space, devoting it to human existence, where, within its finite boundaries, man encloses the universe, through its symbolic relationships and infinite representations.
Within this frame of reference, the crafted artefact developed by Studio Ossidiana responds to the idea of the carpet as architectural space, house and temple, shelter and platform: it is both space and object, evoking narratives, framing rituals, inducing spirituality.
The object is a platform modelled on the size of the carpet. It is named Kouchk and it is inspired by the use of carpets on top of elevated platforms in traditional Persian gardens. The word ‘Kouchk’ relates to the etymology of ‘kiosk’, and alludes to the origin of garden kiosks as carpets on the ground, often placed on temporary elevated structures, in the proximity of the garden fountain. In Persian miniatures we find this type of carpet framing figures surrounded by pots of food and beverages in a festive setting. Through time the ‘elevated’ carpet has been transposed, or ‘petrified’ into durable structures in stone, becoming a permanent pavilion, a mausoleum or the garden palace.
The concrete object translates these relations into a new form, a raised platform based on the place of the human body on the carpet. The niches on the surface abstracts, as a ‘figure-ground’, the imprints of the objects and human figures on the two-dimensional surface of the carpet, ‘petrifying’ in stone the fine engravings that are found on the textile surface. This space for two people is a landscape that invites rituals. It is a space that is both familiar and estranging, that invites the viewer to find his/her own interpretation and use.
The material used is concrete coloured with different pigments and Royal Rouge stones, Royal Rouge sand, white Norwegian marble, and yellow river stones. The top layer has been lightly polished, in order to reveal the minerals present in the concrete mixtures, which have been carefully chosen as abstract carpet textures and figures. The underneath has been sculpted by hand into a topographic landscape.
The object is part of the Petrified Carpets series presented by Studio Ossidiana at Dutch Design Week 2016, in which elements found in Persian carpets and gardens were translated into a series of colorful concrete architectural elements. This collection is inspired by a typology of carpets, the Chahar Bagh, the 'garden carpet', which, similarly to the prayer rug, features abstract motifs based on architectural elements.
The Chahar Bagh carpet is a plan-like representation of a garden. Its motifs of the frame, the central medallion and the grid represent various architectural elements found in Persian gardens, such as the surrounding wall, the central fountain, the kiosk, and the doorways to the garden.
Experimenting with different techniques of casting, colouring and texturing concrete, Studio Ossidiana has translated these elements into tactile concrete forms. Through the collaboration with high-end prefabricated concrete manufacturer Hurks, the objects expose the lively, bright characteristics of a material that has, in the building industry, progressively lost its expressive potential. The project combines pigments, stones, sand and cement in different ratios in each object, in a reference to the contours, tones, and shades of gardens. The objects come together in an installation that transcends the garden and the carpet in a new landscape of objects - in a space suspended between earthly and ethereal dimensions.
Petrified Carpets is an installation presented at Dutch Design Week 2016, in the exhibition ‘In No Particular Order’, curated by Agata Jaworska. It is supported by the Talent Development Programme of the Creative Industries Fund NL, which promotes exceptional emerging designers, researchers and makers from the fields of architecture, design, fashion, e-culture and graphic design. Korean photographer EH (Kyoungtae Kim) made a photographic report of the installation.
Studio Ossidiana is grateful for the backing of the Creative Industries Fund NL, without whom Petrified Carpets would not have been possible, as well as generous support from Hurks Prefabbeton in the production of Petrified Carpets. A special thanks to Moshe Tabibnia Gallery for the consultation of their library on carpets, and Hamed Koshravi for consultancy during the process.
Text: Alessandra Covini . Research: Alessandra Covini and Tomas Dirrix
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